60 Years On: The Little Rock Nine

September 2017 marks 60 years since the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, a key event of the American Civil Rights Movement.


NARA Holdings Relating to the Desegregation of Central High School

The Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch at the National Archives has in its holdings several reels of unedited footage shot in Little Rock while the 101st Airborne Division was present.

111 LC 41033 Operation Arkansas, Little Rock, Arkansas

111 LC 41036 Operation Arkansas, Little Rock, Arkansas

We also have, as part of our Universal Newsreel collection, an outtake of President Eisenhower’s address to the nation. In the speech, he explains his decision to deploy the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. A transcript of the speech can be found here.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library has several items relating to the Little Rock school integration crisis and President Eisenhower’s response. Those documents are available here.

History of the Event

As a response to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which directed that “separate but equal educational facilities for racial minorities is inherently unequal violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the Little Rock School Board adopted a plan for gradual integration of its schools beginning with high schools in September 1957. Applicants for the integration process were vetted by members of the Arkansas NAACP and its president Daisy Gatson Bates. The students selected ranged in age from 14-17 and would come to be known as the Little Rock Nine.

On September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus announced he would be activating the Arkansas State National Guard to block any integration efforts at Central High School. A day later, Federal Judge Ronald Davies issued a ruling that desegregation at the school would continue as planned on September 4. The nine students arrived at the school on September 4 and were met by the Arkansas National Guard who would ultimately block their entry to the school.

In the following weeks, Judge Davies began legal proceedings against Governor Faubus, and President Eisenhower tried to persuade Faubus to remove the National Guard and allow the students to enter the school.  On September 20, Judge Davies ordered the National Guard be removed from Little Rock and he replaced them with the police.

The students were escorted by police into Central High School on September 23, but were removed due to rioting outside the school. The following day, September 24, President Eisenhower activated 1200 members of the 101st Airborne Division, placing them in charge of the Arkansas National Guard. The Little Rock Nine, escorted by the troops, attended their first full day of school on September 25.

The 101st Airborne Division remained in Little Rock for the duration of the school year. The Little Rock Nine completed their first year at Central High School while being exposed to harassment and violence from students, staff and the community. The following year in September, Governor Faubus closed Little Rock’s high schools pending a public vote regarding integration. The community voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed for the entire year.

The Students

The nine students involved in the integration of Central High School are Melba Pattillo Beals, Ph. D., Carlotta Walls, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Terrence Roberts, and Thelma Mothershed. Each member of the group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Clinton.

What Resulted

The actions of the Little Rock Nine called the nation’s attention to the importance of access to a quality education and helped define the civil rights movement.  Eight years after their fight for equal education, the students were featured in a film commissioned by USIA under George Stevens, Jr. That film, Nine from Little Rock is in the collection at NARA.  You can read more about the efforts to digitally restore it, here.


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